Routing Around Government

2009-04-24

I just finished reading Clay Shirky's book Here Comes Everybody, in which he describes the major changes underway in how human beings form groups for the purposes of sharing information, producing things, and taking action in the world, mostly caused by the proliferation of tools for online interaction (photo sharing sites, online encyclopedias, wikis, discussion lists, forums, micromessaging, open-source projects, and all the rest). Fascinating stuff.

Shirky notes that the opportunities for cooperative action have so far been mostly limited to protests, then extrapolates to future possibilities (p. 318):

Governments and even companies are accustomed to being the target of protests, so as protests coordinated by social media become normal, their effectiveness will fall. A more remarkable and longer-lived change will be in the offing, though, if people are able to start using these tools to bypass government or commercial entities in favor of taking on problems directly. If this happens, it will be a far bigger challenge to the previous institutional monopoly on large-scale action than anything we have seen to date.

Interesting. Essentially, this development would imply a strengthening of civil society at the expense of the state. Yet Shirky observes that group action is more difficult to achieve than the kind of collaborative production that's become familiar from projects like Linux and Wikipedia (p. 51):

Collective action, the third rung, is the hardest kind of group effort, as it requires a group of people to commit themselves to undertaking a particular effort together, and to do so in a way that makes the decision of the group binding on the individual members. All group structures create dilemmas, but these dilemmas are hardest when it comes to collective action, because the cohesion of the group become critical to its success. Information sharing produces shared awareness among the participants, and collaborative production relies on shared creation, but collective action creates shared responsibility, by tying the user's identity to the identity of the group. In historical terms, a potluck dinner or a barn raising is collaborative production (the members work together to create something), while a union or a government engages in collective action, action that is undertaken in the name of the members [and] meant to change something out in the world, often in opposition to other groups committed to different outcomes.

There is historical precedent for this kind of "collective action" in the form of the friendly societies or benefit societies of times past. These voluntary associations enabled the members to provide a wide variety of services to each other: mutual aid, mutual defense, insurance, cooperative banking, pensions, opportunities for trade and barter, social events, and much more.

I've been thinking for quite a while now about just such an organization or network for people who live in accordance with the virtues of personal responsibility, scrupulous honesty, keeping their word, respecting the rights of others, forswearing aggression, and being productive members of society (note that these qualities are neither philosophical nor political, but a matter of character). Because I like good acronyms, I've even thought up a catchy name: the Sovereign Individuals' Mutual Benevolent Association (a.k.a. SIMBA). Unfortunately, I haven't yet found the time to work on this project, despite the fact that some of the recent social networking tools could provide much of the infrastructure. Perhaps I'll get more serious about it in the relatively near future...


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal